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Lyndon Johnson 29, Johnson 28, Heller 10, Lyndon 6, Texas 4, Austin 3, Sorenson 3, Kennedy 3, America 2, Stooped 2, City 2, Houston 2, Us 2, South Texas 2, Roosevelt 2, New York 1, The Johnsons 1, Johnson City 1, Ladybird 1, Uncalculated 1,
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  CSPAN    [untitled]  

    July 8, 2012
    4:30 - 5:00pm EDT  

as i started to interview lyndon johnson, you know, i came, lyndon johnson died so young at the age of 64, and i came along so quickly after he had died that all the people who knew him, who grew up with lyndon johnson, were just about all still there. if his best friend in high school was truman force, truman force had moved to a bigger house but it was still in just city just a couple of miles away. his first girlfriend was kitty ross, and she actually still lived in her parent's house, and i started to learn about this. the land, it starts just -- it's now, of course -- it's pushed out into -- then the hill country began just at the western edge of austin and rolled west and encompasses 23,000 square miles, which is an area big enough to put all of new england into it and still have room for pennsylvania. and the population at that time was about three people per square mile.
at first settlers called it the land of endless horizons because every time you got to the top of one line of hills, you found that there was another one beyond it. it was a land of incredible loneliness as i started talking to people there. i'll never forget lyndon johnson, the johnsons, for a large part of lyndon's boyhood, didn't even live in johnson city. they lived 18 miles beyond it on the johnson ranch. and lyndon's brother sam houston johnson once told me they were so lonely out there that one corner of the ranch came down to what they called the austin fredricksburg harbor which is really an unpaved path between austin and fredricksburg and he told me how lyndon and he would go down and sit on this corner of the fence hour after hour, hoping for one new face to come along so they would have someone new to talk to. it was a land of almost incredible poverty.
there was almost no cash there. you could get a dime from selling a dozen eggs, but you had to go to marble falls to sell it. marble falls was 22 miles away across the hills, and a friend of lyndon johnson's, ben kreider, told me how he used to on saturdays ride those 22 miles carrying a dozen eggs in a basket in front of him, and carrying them like this so that they wouldn't break. 22 miles like that to get a dime. and i came to realize that being from new york i simply wasn't understanding. i came back and told him one night i'm not understanding these people, and i'm not understanding this country. therefore, i'm not understanding lyndon johnson. would you mind if we moved here? ina, of course, said okay, and for three years we rented a house up in the hill country, but i would spend day after day driving around interviewing these people, every interview seemed to be 180 miles from the one before. interviewing these people who
grew up with lyndon johnson, went to college with lyndon johnson, or with members of his first political machine. when you move to a world, it opens up to you in ways that you can't even imagine. i mean, one thing i heard, you know -- we all heard if you read about lyndon johnson, you cite a wonderful journalist for "time" magazine has a poignant scene in his book on johnson's presidency where following a cabinet meeting johnson says -- he says following cabinet meetings johnson would often say, you know, i had two rhodes scholars at the table, all these guys from harvard and one graduate of southwest texas state teaches college. and he said johnson would always laugh loudly at that. too loudly. and i didn't really understand what lyndon johnson's education, the effect that it had on him, until i went down to the college, found the textbooks that they used, and i said gee,
do you like textbooks that you would use in high school in new york. that was his college education. i found a friend of his, joe barry, who later became a professor at bryn mawr, he said, you know, when i got to bryn mawr i realized i couldn't talk to anybody about anything. i felt i had been cheated out of an education. so that's part of lyndon johnson's upbringing. but it also showed me living there just how remarkable were his unique abilities to use the powers of government to improve the lives. while i was interviewing in the hill country, i came to realize that i was hearing the same thing over and over. they would tell me these stories about johnson ruthlessness and his cruelty, often just cruelty for the sake of being cruel. but then i would hear over and over they would say no matter what lyndon was like, we loved him because he brought the
lights. brought the lights. i knew what brought the lights meant. i knew from reading, that when johnson became congressman in 1937, at the age of 28, there was no electricity in the hill country, and during his term as congressman, he brought electricity to the hill country. because i came from new york city where electricity is always just there, you turn a light switch, and it's on, i understood intellectually what bringing electricity meant, but i didn't really understand what it meant or what the lives of the people of the hill country were like without it. >> because they didn't have electricity, of course, they didn't have movies, they didn't have radio programs. one of the poignant things that they told me was so many of these farmers and ranchers would say, you know, we love fdr, he saved my ranch. he saved my farm. we heard all about these wonderful fireside chats, but we couldn't hear the fireside chats. the only radios they had in the hill country were these crystal sets, and they would describe sitting there while roosevelt
was talking, moving the needle back and forth on the dial. and trying to find -- trying to make his voice come in clearly. but movies and radio are just entertainment. not having electricity means something a lot deeper than that. you can say it all. you don't have washing machines, et cetera, but you can say the most poignant and most basically perhaps in water. for us we just turn a faucet and because of electric pumps water comes out. but in the hill country, water came from streams and wells. now the streams in the hill country are generally small and dried up for a large part of the year. so they had to get water out of the wells. and the water table in the hill country in general is about 75 feet deep. so they had to dig wells 75 feet and bring up water from it. if the department of agriculture tells us that at that time the
average farm family used 200 gallons of water each day, or 73,000 gallons or 300 tons per year. and that water had to be brought up from the wells by the women. by the wives of the house. because the husband was out in the fields working all day. and there was so little cash in the hill country that as soon as the children got old enough to work, boys and girls both, they had to work what they called off the farm. on more prosperous farms in other areas of texas, nearby areas of texas for a dollar a day to earn some cash money. so the woman of the house would be left there alone. i couldn't get -- had a hard time getting these women to talk to me at the beginning because incredibly enough they were very shy, very shy about talking to someone from the city, so, i, as a matter of fact learned to make fig preserves and she would go and become friends with the women, and then i could go back and they would talk to me more freely.
they would say to me, you're a city boy. she says you don't know what bringing the water meant. they would say, and they would go to their attic, or their garage, and they'd bring out a bucket of water, often with the rope still attached, frayed old rope attached, and they would take me over to the wells which are always covered by these boards, and you'd push the boards aside and they'd say, they'd drop the bucket in and they would say, you're a city boy. you don't know how heavy a bucket of water is. now pull it up. of course, a bucket of water you find out is heavy to be pulled up. in fact, it was so too heavy for these women often. so what they would do is they had this metal thing over the well, and they put the rope over it and they do what they call walking away. they pull up on the rope like this to pull the bucket of water out of the well. and that's the way they had to bring up all this water that they needed for household duties.
then they would say to me, you know, it's easier to get into the house if you do it two buckets at a time. you know how we did that? i'll never forget the first time a woman went over to the garage, and opened it, and showed me her yoke, because that's how these women carried the water, with yokes over their shoulders, like cattle. you know i realized that i was here -- another thing, i had been hearing another thing in a lot of these interviews with the women. they would say things like, do you see how round shouldered i am? you see how stooped i am? they would say, do you see how bent i am? the word in the hill country is really bent. do you see how bent i am? and in fact, i had sort of noticed that these women seemed a great deal more stooped than city women. but i thought it was just because they were old. but they would say, i got bent like this before my time.
my back got bent like this when i was young. these women were stooped at 40, stooped at 35. one woman said to me, i swore that i wasn't going to look like my mother looked, but then the babies started to come, and i had to bring the water, and i knew i was going to look exactly like my mother looked. they would show me what wash days were like because they didn't have electricity. they would take out four number three zinc wash tubs and line them up on your lawn. and you'd build a fire under each one and you transfer -- the first one was the lye soap and they didn't have enough money to buy store bought soap so they had to make their own soap out of lye. there was another expression in the hill country. lye soap peels the skin off your hands like gloves. you put the first load of wash in and use the lye and scrub it
out with the lye soap and they'd say you're a city boy, you don't know how heavy a load of wet wash is on the end of a broomstick, do you? they would give me -- and it's very heavy. then after the lye wash tub, the rinsing wash tub, the blueing or starch wash tub, and then the over rinsing wash tub. so they had to transfer these between the wash tubs, and on an average day, as near as i could tell, there were eight to ten loads of wash in the hill country family. and i'll never forget how my back hurt on wash days. tuesday was ironing. i'm not going to bore you all by going through every day of the week. i named that -- they called it, i named a chapter of what they called tuesday, the sad iron. because you didn't have electricity an iron was a hunk of metal with a wooden handle which you would transfer from iron to iron, and you would have to get them hot on the stove. that meant you had to stand next
to the stove all day doing your ironing, and it's nothing in the hill country for it to get up to 105 or 106 degrees, sort of day by day there. so these people were living lives out of the middle ages. they were living like peasants. lyndon johnson runs for congress at the age of 28. and he says, he basically says, if you elect me i will bring electricity. well, they elected him. let me just go back, and lyndon johnson was a political genius. and he gears his campaign to the women. what he said, the line that he uses is if you elect me, you won't look like your mother does. they elect him. but no one really believes that he can bring electricity. i mean, there is no dam, no source of dam in the hill country. a dam has been started at the edge of the hill country, but it's the depression, it's 1937, the company that was doing it has run out of money to do it.
and so the dam is stopped. even if you build a dam, how are you going to get electricity out to these scattered farms? isolated farms, miles, one by one, laying lines across the littles? well, to watch lyndon johnson do that, to watch him do what he had to do to get the dam built. then persuade the rural administration to violate all their rules, and lay these lines, when i think they had a minimum of like ten people per mile or they wouldn't lay lines. but they didn't have that there. but he gets them to do it. keeps asking roosevelt for money to build a dam. every time he sees him he asks him for money. he has intermediaries, aides, they're always asking him. finally roosevelt said oh, give the kid the dam. and electricity comes to the hill country. and these people, the people of his tenth congressional district, are brought, in a
stroke by one man using governmental genius for government brings them into the hill -- to the 20th century. and the fact that he did that means that we see in the hill country the beginnings of what we're talking about. beginnings of something else in lyndon johnson. not just an understanding of what should be done to help people who are fighting forces too big for them is fight themselves. they were never going to get electricity on their own. no private company was going to bring it in there. wasn't profitable enough. not just an understanding of what should be done to help people. but the ability to help. the gift that he had. quite a rare gift really. a talent that was beyond talent. to use the powers of government, to help people trying to fight forces too big for them to fight themselves.
his father was a populist legislator, served six terms in the texas house of representatives and he used to say that the proper function of government was to help keep people caught in the tentacles of circumstance. the tentacles of circumstance fighting things too big for you to help to fight yourself. joe said and i tried to write about the effect of power on the powerless and how power is used on the powerless. also you try to write about pow how power is used for the powerless. now we go forward to 1963. president kennedy was assassinated, of course, in november 22nd and lyndon johnson has become president. under president kennedy there had been some vague hardly defined early discussions about an anti-poverty program because over one-fifth of the united states, 33 million people, actually, in that year, 1963, were still living below the poverty line. on the day after the
assassination, saturday november 23rd at the end of the day lyndon johnson meets in his office in the executive office building. he still hasn't moved into the white house. with four of president kennedy's economic advisers, walter heller who is chairman of the council of economic advisers, gordon, the director of the budget bureau, douglas dillon the secretary of the treasury, and gardner ackerley whose title escapes me at the moment. he was a deputy to heller. the meeting is about budget. johnson is coming in in the middle of the budget. process, knowing very little about it, has to get brought up to speed. it's a long meeting, but at the end of the meeting, as heller is leaving he is walking out the open door, and lyndon johnson is beside him. we know what heller said and we know what johnson's response was, because both heller and
ackly left moats on the meeting and their notes coincide exactly. heller mentions the anti-poverty program. johnson shuts the door. he says that's my kind of program. i'll find money for it one way or the other. heller had up to that point -- johnson had said a lot of things about budget and his various priorities. heller had formed an impression i'll read from his notes. johnson's other remarks, he said it was "a little calculating, a play for support." there he was. lyndon johnson, the politician. not about this, however. standing at that door, heller suddenly feels that there was no calculation at all in lyndon johnson's response to poverty. that was so spontaneous, so
immediate, and instinctive and intuitive, and uncalculated response. all his life, people who worked for johnson for years knew about those moments of instinctive, uncalculated responses. always in response to injustice, social injustice, social need. those of you who have head my books know there was a moment like that in 1949 when he learns that a mexican-american soldier has been killed in the philippines during world war ii, has been denied burial in his south texas cemetery in south texas town because he's not white. on the instant john connally and walter jenkins are standing there when johnson, they hand him the telegram. johnson reads it and without a moment's hesitation, he says by god, we'll bury him in arlington. all through his life there are these moments and here is
another one. that christmas, that december, johnson goes down for a two-week vacation on his ranch and heller finds out that his analysis, his feeling that this was unspontaneous -- that this was spontaneous, uncalculated, he finds that that analysis was correct. johnson is down on the ranch. the johnson ranch, the ranch that his father lost, and that he has now brought back. and when heller and kermit gordon get there they find that those words weren't meaningless. johnson has found new money, half a billion dollars for an anti-poverty program and they find that he is determined to push it through congress. he gives them a lesson in political tactics. they have -- they have thought of a program as a targeted demonstration program with demonstration programs in a limited number of cities. johnson says -- tries to make them understand that a limited
number of districts means that a limited number of congressmen are going to get benefits from that program. and he says in his memoirs, i was certain that we could not start small and propel the
me. this is the quote.
that's the only way we can keep up, he said, otherwise they are too far ahead of us. we always get up early, don't we, when he answers the phone on the first ring. we can't make it unless we do. at the age of nine and ten, lyndon johnson had worked in the cotton fields behind his cousin, hauling cotton all day underneath the broiling country sun. that christmas, we know from the back-up diary the aids kept, the presidential aids kept that johnson, ladybird, visit to bring flowers for christmas. she didn't, except she was sure they talked about the cotton
picking. she said whenever she and lyndon got together, the subject of cotton came up. we always talked about the cotton, she said, we just hated that so much. hate is a word that occurs very frequently when people talk about lyndon johnson's feelings about poverty. in a memoir that was written by his long-time cardiologist, dr. willis herst, he writes he hated poverty and literacy, he hated it when a person who wanted to work could not get a job. then he recounts a incident that occurred during his vice presidency on a trip to iran and they pass a group of iranian children and someone remarks they have rags for clothing and johnson flies into a rage, don't say that, i know rags when i see them. they had patched clothes.
that's a lot different from rags, and i suddenly remember when i read this, reminiscence of dr. herst's, something lyndon's brother had told me about them growing up, and i couldn't quite recall, which is why i didn't quote it exactly in the book, but only in general. i hadn't thought to take a note of it at the time, but i remember sam houston saying something like when he was describing their poverty that he and his sister rebecca had to wear patched clothes, and i remember him saying something like, they weren't rags. so these are the beginnings of lyndon johnson on the antipoverty program, the war on poverty. you know how much the war on poverty meant to johnson when you listen to the words in that first state of the union speech when he flew back to washington
from the ranch january 8,1964. johnson persuaded ted sorenson to stay on at least for awhile and help him with his speeches, a short while, and sorenson, he had flown him and his three little boys down to texas and they were staying at the louis ranch, which is some miles away from the johnson ranch. his little boy, sorenson's little boy asked they were supposed to spend time with him that christmas but remembers him scribbling at the end of the hall. several evenings he talked about the speech, but when you analyze those drafts and you can see them in the johnson library draft by draft, you see how much of it came from johnson. some of it when he delivers the speech, a real lyndon johnson
words. sorenson had written this administration declares unconditional war on poverty in america. the speech delivered by lyndon johnson is, this administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in america. he had added four words, today, here and now, lyndon johnson words, and the speech said unfortunately, many americans live on the outskirts of hope. some because of their poverty and some because of their color and all too many because of both. our task is to help that one-fifth of all american families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs. our chief weapons will be better schools and better health and better homes and better training and better job opportunities, to help more americans, especially young americans, escape from
squalor and misery and unemployment. you know, it's interesting to watch that speech on tape today. as lyndon johnson says those three words, squalor, misery, unemployment, his eyes behind the thick glasses he had to wear for speeches, narrow, and i wrote, his lips, set already in that grim, tough line, tightened and twisted into an expression close to a snarl and he continued with words that while none of them applied specifically to the circumstances of his own life, might nevertheless had a special resonance for someone who grew up in poverty and knew it was only because you hadn't been given a fair chance. of course, lyndon johnson passed the war on poverty, passed so
many of the other bills that will be discussed in this symposium, he showed in his presidency what he demonstrated as a young congressman, a rare gift, a talent beyond talent, a talent that was genius for transmuting compassion into government action and to transmute compassion into government action to make the compassion meaningful. the life of lyndon johnson is a very complicated life, but two aspects of it showing through all the complications, showing brightly through all the dark episodes. one is the compassion, the sympathy for, the empathy for people, poor people, people of color, people caught in the tentacles of circumstance, and the other is the great gift, the talent beyond talent to make compassion meaningful. meaningful how?